Stella’s Story

February 6, 2024

James Ranch’s Colorful Cattlewoman

Colorized historic photo of Stella James riding her horse.News article about Stella James and her artwork used to make a celebratory belt buckle.

by Robb Lightfoot, photos courtesy Kevin and Judy Schulz

The old saying, “They don’t make them like that anymore” is a fitting tribute to the life of Stella James, a woman who could feed 40 cowhands and then walk out the door to break and train a string of horses all by herself. 

Stella’s great nephew, Kevin Schulz, said that just a week before she died at age 97, Stella was working alongside him helping him load his truck with firewood.

“Stella and I would walk the property to check fences and check cattle, and she would never leave the house without her .38 Smith and Wesson, as long as she lived.”

Stella died in April of 2013, but it was her wish that her beloved ranch, west of Willits, be cared for even after her passing.  Since then, her family has continued to keep the land as a working ranch and honor her wishes. In December of 2023, her descendants, collaborating with Mendocino Land Trust, received a grant that will allow the James Ranch to be protected in perpetuity much as it is now thanks to a conservation easement. 

Stella's map of Sherwood.Stella the Artist at work

Conrad Kramer, Executive Director of MLT says that both he and the landowners are “overjoyed” with the grant and “extremely grateful” to the grantor, California’s Strategic Growth Council, or SGC. 

Included in this grant were the funds to conserve almost 1,300 acres that constitute the unique and picturesque landscape known as James Ranch. MLT believes it is fitting that the James Ranch was selected for protection. 

James Ranch has been in commercial agricultural production since the 1800s. The ranch is comprised of mixed Douglas fir and redwood forests, oak woodlands, annual grassland, and mixed chaparral. It is a gem situated in the Sherwood Valley.

But a ranch isn’t a really a ranch unless it is being worked, and the work is hard. It takes a special kind of person to be out there, year after year, every day no matter what the weather. Stella James was such a tough, can-do, and inventive person.

The Willits News wrote in June of 2013 an article celebrating her life. In that article, she was described as a “topnotch cowhand,” able to mend fences, haul hay, and do all that was required on a working cattle-ranch—feeding and branding cattle. She often fed large gatherings of cowhands and was “used to hauling water and washing dishes over a campfire.” A goodly part of her life-story was in a world without the conveniences of running water or electricity. 

She was a no-nonsense person when it came to debt—she would have none of it. If she couldn’t afford to buy things cash, she would improvise or do without.

But Stella knew how to have fun, too. She loved riding in parades, and it was in once such parade, while still in school, that she met her future husband, Edgar. They both knew “right away” that they were drawn to one another. They were married shortly after she graduated from Willits High School in August 1933. Over their years in rodeo—a passion and a pastime both she and Edgar shared – Stella racked up many awards. She was top cattlewoman of 1937 in the five-counties area that includes Mendocino, and in 1948 she was the Fortuna Redwood Rodeo Queen. 

And while all this effort made for long days, Stella still found time to exercise her substantial skills as an artist. The Willits News article noted her contributions to the Frontier Days events.  “I used to draw all of the pictures for the posters,” she said. “I once drew a life-size bucking Brahma bull on a plywood back.” The artwork was used to promote the rodeo. Later, in 2000, Stella designed a belt-buckle for the same Frontier Days events. She was 84 years old.

Much of what is known about the ranch’s history is because Stella passed it on, and her great nephew remembers her story-telling style. 

“Anytime her friends or family took Stella into town as she got older, she would start talking and literally never stop until she got back home,” Schulz said. “It was a rare occasion if you got a word in. She would point here and there, often touching your nose with her hand as she swung it to and fro, telling you where this person lived, their names, the names of their children, where the grist mills were, where old man so and so had his accident, and so much more. She had a photographic memory. Friends and neighbors would send her packets of old pictures for her to identify.”  

In addition to her oral histories, she drew a large picture, from her own memory, that depicted a map of Sherwood, which once stood on the James Ranch. The town sat directly alongside the railway, and it boasted a hardware store, and general store.

Stella knew and lived so much of the history of her ranch, but her life was not confined by its boundaries. She was able to get out and see the world. According to her great nephew, she traveled to Alaska, seeking adventure everywhere she went. When she visited Australia, she took a rafting trip, adding those experiences to her rich repertoire of stories.

So many stories. So many memories. Stella was a tireless force of nature who combined hard work, wit, grit, and a passion for the land to craft an amazing life. She will be long remembered by those who knew, respected, and cherished her. And the James Ranch that bears her name will carry on in a way that honors its rich history and natural beauty. It will continue to do her proud as a working ranch, conserved and protected for all time thanks to her descendants and MLT.